Heroic Headstone

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Ceremony honors actions of local WWII veteran William Pinckney

Photo above: Members of the U.S. Navy give a final salute following the unveiling of the revised headstone of William Pinckney last Saturday at the Beaufort National Cemetery. Photos by Bob Sofaly.

By Bob Sofaly

In late October 1942, the Japanese mounted a counter offensive to take back the island of Guadalcanal. A major naval battle raged off the Santa Cruz Island and the out-gunned American Navy suffered heavy losses including the sinking of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. Although heavily damaged, the USS Enterprise stayed in the fight until it had to withdraw.

During the battle, a bomb burst in one of the Enterprise’s ammunition magazines, setting off a fire that killed many sailors. William Pinckney, an African American from Dale, S.C., was a Ships Cook First Class aboard the Enterprise. His assigned battle station was in the magazine as an ammunition handler. His job was to pass ammunition from the bellow-decks magazine to an elevator that took the ammo to the gunners. The bomb exploded but miraculously did not ignite the ammunition. Pinckney carried his wounded chief petty officer over his shoulders and climbed a ladder through the fire so Navy corpsmen could save his chief’s life. Then Pinckney climbed back down through the fire to rescue four more severely wounded shipmates, who unfortunately did not survive. Pinckney was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism, as well as a Purple Heart. He died in 1976 on Lady’s Island and was buried at Beaufort National Cemetery.

But for a clerical error that omitted his Navy Cross award from Pinckney’s headstone, his story would have ended there. However, local veterans and civic groups took it upon themselves to make things right. On Saturday, Feb. 10, scores of family, friends and officers from all three military branches in Beaufort County, looked on as Pinckney’s new headstone was unveiled.

Pinckney’s brave actions were recognized in 2004 when the U.S. Navy commissioned the USS Pinckney (DDG 91) — an Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer. 

The new headstone for WWII Navy veteran William Pinckney now reads Purple Heart and Navy Cross. Pinckney was awarded the nation’s second highest medal for valor for his unsurpassed bravery while rescuing his shipmates after a Japanese bomb exploded in the ammunition magazine in which Pinckney, a ship’s cook, was assigned as his battle station aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise during the Battle of Santa Cruz in October, 1942.
The new headstone for WWII Navy veteran William Pinckney now reads Purple Heart and Navy Cross. Pinckney was awarded the nation’s second highest medal for valor for his unsurpassed bravery while rescuing his shipmates after a Japanese bomb exploded in the ammunition magazine in which Pinckney, a ship’s cook, was assigned as his battle station aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise during the Battle of Santa Cruz in October, 1942.
Flanked by members of the Patriot Guard Riders, local historian Larry Rowland describes his involvement in getting a new headstone for WWII veteran William Pinckney.
Flanked by members of the Patriot Guard Riders, local historian Larry Rowland describes his involvement in getting a new headstone for WWII veteran William Pinckney.

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